The Nobel decision was a brave defence of the European project

The Peace Prize was a reminder that the EU has been a force for good and remains a bulwark against further suffering.

The committee responsible for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize is a close-knit Norwegian elite, and we will probably never know exactly how it arrived at its decision to award the 2012 prize to the European Union. But we can guess.

At the heart of the process must have been Thorbjorn Jagland, the current secretary general of the Council of Europe and a former Norwegian prime minister. He has been chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee since 2009, with considerable sway over its deliberations. In 1990 he wrote a book called My European Dream, which argued for Norway’s accession to the EU, and in 2008 he specifically advocated that the EU should win the Nobel Peace Prize. I think we can safely assume that Jagland was instrumental in making this happen.

Some may be scratching their heads at the apparent absurdity of the decision and, admittedly, it does seem a bit odd. Why award the prize this year of all years? With each wave of the euro crisis, southern Europeans’ livelihoods hang in the balance. The social contract in Greece and Spain has all but disintegrated, principally owing to failures at the EU elite level. This has left space for dangerous and, in some cases, violent populist forces to emerge. Throughout the crisis, two of the EU’s three main institutions – the Parliament and the Commission – have been sidelined, making a mockery of the European project. And public trust in the EU is hitting new lows.

But perhaps these are precisely the reasons why this decision was made, and why it has the touch of genius about it. Jagland cares about the European project, and he is using his unique position to make a brave defence of it. Amidst all the recent bad news, it is easy to forget how the EU has been a force for good in the past and remains a bulwark against further suffering in the future. The Nobel Peace Prize could be seen as partly a lifetime achievement award and partly a confidence-boosting recognition of its potential.

It must have taken an extraordinary amount of effort to persuade the conservative members of the committee to go with this choice. Perhaps it should be seen as a triumph and a call to arms for those committed to increased European integration and co-operation. Earlier this year, the New Statesman's political editor Rafael Behr wrote that those in Britain who are broadly Europhile need to start exercising the arguments in favour. Since then, a referendum on Britain’s membership has become even more likely. Jagland has attempted to do what few politicians in Europe – let alone sceptical Britain – have yet dared, which is to make the case for renewed faith in the European project. Perhaps it is time for others to follow suit.

William Brett is a PhD candidate at UCL and a research assistant at the Centre for Financial Analysis & Policy.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso speaks after the EU was awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. Photograph: Getty Images.
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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.